What makes us feel awkward in a closed space like an elevator? Why do we write lengthy, punctuated letters to seniors at work while their reply in turn is crisp and curt? And what has that got to do with apes, macaques and baboons? Primatologist Dario Maestripieri, professor of comparative human development, evolutionary biology, neurobiology and psychiatry and behavioural neuroscience at the University of Chicago, US, draws interesting, amusing and insightful parallels between humans and our closest living relatives. Maestripieri has previously written Macachiavellian Intelligence: How Rhesus Macaques And Humans Have Conquered the World.
In a chapter titled “The Obsession With Dominance” in his new book, Games Primates Play: An Undercover Investigation of the Evolution And Economics of Human Relationships, Maestripieri observes two colleagues at his office who are sitting down to have coffee. The play of dominance and subordination in this relationship bears a striking resemblance to two baboons eating bananas, he says. Maestripieri, who has devoted his life to studying primate societies, attributes this to evolution.
Whether it is to understand what it is to be human, or to get ahead at work, Games Primates Play puts things into perspective and throws light on the origin and context of social behaviour among humans. Edited excerpt:
Dominance Relationships 24/7
To begin with, if we measure the amount of time two male baboons spend looking at each other on a given day, chances are the subordinate spends a lot more time looking at the dominant than vice versa. Moreover, the subordinate is more likely to change his behaviour in response to the dominant than the other way around. For example, if the subordinate is sitting in a corner eating a banana and the dominant walks by, the subordinate is likely to stop eating and go sit in a different spot. If the dominant is eating a banana and the subordinate walks by, the dominant will probably continue eating the banana as if nothing has happened. More generally, the subordinate avoids the dominant and gets out of his way, while the dominant pays no attention to the subordinate. The dominant rarely greets the subordinate. The dominant stares at the subordinate or uses other threatening facial expressions or vocalizations and may even attack the subordinate. The subordinate never initiates threats or aggression toward the dominant, although when under attack he may occasionally fight back in self-defense.
Games Primates Play: By Dario Maestripieri, Basic Books,302 pages, $28 (Around Rs1,550).
In primate societies in which individuals have strong and stable dominance relationships, most fighting consists of intimidatory aggression by dominants against subordinates to maintain and reinforce the status quo. To try to control a dominant’s aggression, win his tolerance, and possibly receive some favours, a subordinate not only behaves submissively but also provides services to the dominant. For baboons and other primates, these services consist mainly of grooming. The dominant allows the subordinate to stay close to him during or after grooming, and if the subordinate gets into a fight with another individual and calls for help, the dominant may intervene and lend a hand. In some cases, there is an exchange of grooming between a dominant and a subordinate, but, as described earlier in this chapter, the grooming given and received between the two is never well balanced.
Many of the baboon behaviours I describe here have obvious parallels in humans. I recently witnessed a conversation at a coffee shop on campus between two female colleagues I know very well: one is a tenured professor in her sixties—let’s call her Jane—and the other a young and untenured assistant professor hired a few years ago—I’ll call her Jill. When they found a table where they could sit, I noticed that they both went for the chair with its back against the wall—people like to have their back protected when they sit in a coffee shop or a restaurant—but then Jill immediately withdrew and let Jane take the favoured chair. During the conversation, Jill was very attentive to everything Jane said and did, maintaining almost continuous eye contact with her, while Jane’s attention wandered when Jill was talking. Jill also smiled at Jane more frequently than the reverse. At some point, I overheard them talking about a potentially contentious issue—the hiring of a new faculty member in their department. As Jane forcefully stated her opinion on the subject to Jill, she stared her down and raised her tone of voice. Jill smiled harder than ever, quickly deferred to Jane’s viewpoint, and immediately moved the conversation to a more neutral topic. She also offered to get some more milk for Jane’s coffee, and toward the end of the conversation she apologized profusely for not being able to stay longer. Before getting up from her chair, she waited until Jane stood up first, and then they both left the coffee shop, Jane walking out the door first, and Jill following behind.
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